Q: How do I find out about old electric Lionel trains? My set, purchased in 1938, is in good running condition and has its original box and instructions. Is it valuable?
A: Condition, age, rarity and demand help determine how much collectors might pay for a set of old Lionel trains, according to Ron Hollander, 197 Lincoln Ave., Newark, N.J. 07104. He is author of "All Aboard! The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen & His Toy Train Company," ($14.95 paperback, Workman Publishing). He says your circa 1936-'41 "Commodore Vanderbilt" set, named for the founder of the New York Central Railroad, is a common model, worth around $200.
The most sought-after Lionel models generally predate World War II and are "in as close to the same condition they were on Christmas, when trembling 6-year-old fingers unwrapped them," says Mr. Hollander, noting that extremely rare sets in their original boxes and with their original gift wrap can bring premium prices. A Standard Gauge (2 1/8 inches wide from rail-to-rail) Depression-era Blue Comet steam engine with three passenger cars, which sold for $75 new, today can zoom up to around $4,000, depending on condition.
Rare models painted in unusual colors also are high-ticket items. An original 1957 pink Lady Lionel passenger train, a commercial failure when new, cruises in at up to about $1,000. It's one of the many Lionel sets which have been reissued, so buying from a knowledgeable and reliable dealer who guarantees authenticity is important.
Serious model-train collectors belong to the Train Collectors Association, P.O. Box 248, Strasburg, Pa. 17579, (717) 687-8623, which publishes a newsletter, organizes shows and operates a toy-train museum. There's a $25 application fee to join, plus annual dues of $20.
Ted Mauer Auctions, 1003 Brookwood Drive, Pottstown, Pa. 19464-3022, (215) 323-1573, specializes in toy trains and regularly sells Lionels.
Q: Since it's the 30th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, I was curious about the value of an autographed menu I have from his 45th birthday celebration on May 19, 1962, at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.
A: Assuming the JFK autograph is authentic, and not the handiwork of a secretary, your menu could be worth $600 to $900 if in good condition, according to autograph and manuscript dealer Joseph Rubinfine, 505 S. Flagler Drive, Suite 1301, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33401, (407) 659-7077. A U.S. Senate restaurant menu signed by Kennedy brought $525 at auction recently, Mr. Rubinfine says, noting that collectors probably would pay a bit more for a JFK signature dating from his White House years. After Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, Kennedy's is among the most sought-after presidential signatures.
Other readers have asked about an almost mint-condition copy of "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy," published by Perry Wolff/Doubleday, in 1962, and autographed by the first lady (worth about $500 if the signature is genuine, and under $25 unsigned, according to dealer Catherine Barnes, of Philadelphia). A first edition of JFK's "Profiles in Courage," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, can fetch $1,200 to $1,500, if it has a genuine Kennedy inscription and is in good condition, Ms. Barnes adds.
At a Sotheby's manuscript auction in New York this month, an autographed 1960 six-page offprint of the August 1944 Reader's Digest condensation of John Hersey's "Survival" article from the New Yorker, celebrating Kennedy's exploits after the sinking of PT-109 during World War II, fetched $5,750. Issued in Boston by the Massachusetts Committee for John F. Kennedy for President, the copy was signed by Kennedy for the consignor during a Charleston, W.Va., campaign stop in the summer of 1960.
Have a question about an antique or collectible? Write to the Solis-Cohens, P.O. Box 304, Flourtown, Pa. 19031-0304, enclosing a clear photo of the whole object and all marks. Photos can't be returned. Although personal replies are not possible, questions of general interest will be answered in this column.